Women’s healthcare providers naturally focus on the foundations of female health and well-being. Most of the time, that focus is on the interplay of diet, exercise, and stress management and how they affect the body, mind, and spirit.
However, the more we learn about overall health and longevity, the more we can’t ignore the importance of social connections. So physicians are now checking in with patients about social and physical fitness to establish their overall well-being.
How’s Your Social Fitness These Days?
In 1938, some Harvard researchers set out to study the physical and mental well-being of young participants for an intentionally long arc. They started studying 268 Harvard sophomores along with 456 young adults from the Boston Area. The study has continued for over 80 years by providing annual surveys, and the results were somewhat surprising.
An article from the Harvard Gazette states, “Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, says one of the biggest surprises they encountered was that what makes people happy is also what helps keep them healthy — relationships.” The study eventually included descendants of the original 724 participants, and by the time the originals reached age 50, the team realized they had an incredible amount of data they could use to determine which factors were the most important for general health and longevity.
They hypothesized that things like low cholesterol, normal blood pressure, and healthy lifestyle factors would be the primary indicators. But, in fact, they were not. Waldinger remarks:
We thought cholesterol levels or blood pressure at age 50 would be more important. They were not. It was satisfaction in their relationships, particularly in their marriages, that was the best predictor of a happy and healthy life. Then other research groups began to find the same thing. Now it is a very robust finding. It’s very well established that interpersonal connectedness, and the quality of those connections, impact health and happiness.
Take a Brief Social Fitness Assessment
So, while diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors are still considered essential, we are also working to assess our patients’ “social fitness.”
Here are some things to think about:
Think about your personal connections in an average week, month, and year.
Think about your personal connections in a typical week, including family members, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parent friends, and those you connect with weekly. Then expand that to those you may email or call every year or so.
Number and frequency matter hear. If the list is short, or you notice personal connections happen more sporadically than regularly, it might be time to connect more.
Social Fitness Booster: Have you suddenly realized that your social network is connected by slender and barely-there threads? Make an effort to reach out to a friend you haven’t talked with in a while and grab a tea/coffee or set a video date to connect.
How interconnected is your personal connections list?
Humans were designed to be part of a clan or tribe, and these relationships were vital to safety and quality of life. Everyone’s interconnectedness played a role. Unfortunately, today, we are more likely to live isolated from our nuclear family, often very separate from other family members or “tribe.”
Think about where your social connections connect, like concentric circles. The more interconnectedness there is, the better. This is why it’s healthy to join clubs, religious/spiritual centers, or volunteer groups; they provide valuable, interconnected support.
Social Fitness Boost: Schedule a walk, hike, picnic, or potluck – whatever makes sense – and invite members of your social network you suspect would get along. It’s a great way to strengthen “tribe” ties.
Who can you genuinely lean on (and be vulnerable with)?
All studies on the connection between social fitness and health/longevity have ideas of why social connection matters. While the warm and fuzzy appeal of hugs and personal touch certainly matters, the effect on social connections and stress management seems to be the most important factor.
When we’re stressed, anxious, or upset about something, we’re most likely to share those concerns with people we connect with and feel safe being vulnerable with. This calms us down, reducing stress levels. Unfortunately, if we live alone and don’t have close connections to confide in, we’re apt to remain in a constant state of fight/flight.
Social Fitness Boost: Resist the urge to “not share” or to keep your troubles to yourself. Being vulnerable and honest helps others feel safer doing the same. It strengthens connections and reduces collective stress.
Which connections drain you or could be considered toxic?
Sometimes a close or personal connection isn’t beneficial. Spending time and energy on relationships that are draining, toxic, or leave you feeling less is unhealthy and takes up time you could spend with those whose relationships benefit you.
While you don’t have to end a toxic relationship cold turkey, identifying you’re in a toxic relationship with a family member, “friend,” or colleague means it’s time to set healthy boundaries.
Social Fitness Boost: Read Healthline’s What is a Toxic Relationship? And then take action – surrounding yourself with those who help you find joy and feel better as yourself.
Identify what your relationships offer.
Most relationships fall into different categories. For example, the people who:
● Are great listeners and provide compassionate responses.
● Seem to know where to direct you or where you might find better support.
● Do what you need to get things done (pick up the kids when you’re sick, feed the dog, pick up the mail when you’re out of town, etc.).
● You identify with and make you feel like you belong.
Some relationships overlap in these categories, but notice if there are any gaps in there and see how you might fill them in.
Social Fitness Boost: Sometimes, it’s a matter of realizing you could do better at one or more of the above when it comes to giving back to the people you’re in relationships with.
Overlake OB/GYN Values Social Fitness & Health
The team at Overlake OB/GYN believes our patient’s health and well-being go far beyond the practical matters of diet and exercise. We do all we can to be part of our patients’ sound social fitness and are happy to help you find stronger connections if you feel yours could be improved. Contact us to schedule your next wellness visit, and let’s talk about how you’re doing on the social fitness meter.